Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Desert TV

I like television. Always have. Many would argue that it is terribly bad for you and give you dire warnings about brain rot and decline of the reading society.

Well I don’t care. I spent nearly 5 months living without TV when we first arrived in Abu Dhabi and it was definitely no fun. I felt totally disconnected from the world and actually became less sociable.

When we moved into our villa, one of the first things we organised was our satellite dish, decoder and TV. Fortunately the installation of this proved far less of a nightmare than some of our other early maintenance experiences.

Unlike in South Africa, there are a variety of subscriber-based satellite options to choose from in Abu Dhabi. Free-to-air channels are also available, but you still need some kind of satellite dish or mega aerial to pick them up. As Arabic is not fluently spoken in our house (though my four-year-old daughter can now count to 5 in Arabic), we pretty much had to go the satellite route.

The options included Pehla, Al Awael, FirstNet, Showtime, Orbit and E-Vision. The first two were not really in our short list mostly because Pehla focuses on the Asian market and Al Awael on the Arabic market. I had never heard of FirstNet until recently, so we didn’t look at that. That left the last three. Showtime proved pricey but had a lot of movie channels. E-Vision was the most expensive, but then it’s a cable channel and you get ALL the other satellite options on it. Looks like about a zillion channels. We eventually picked the “Western” package on Orbit, which we thought would give us a pretty good selection.

It wasn’t bad. All the major news stations, some movie channels, some kids channels, some variety channels, the History Channel, Animal Planet and of course, BBC Prime. I love BBC Prime.

There are two sports channels. Orbit ESPN and Al Riyadiyah. ESPN is all baseball and American football, and Al Riyadiyah seems to be pretty much 90% Saudi League soccer.

We were delighted to see that one of the variety channels, called America Plus, had all the major series on it – like ER, The Sopranos, West Wing, Smallville, Third Watch, and some good Australian series like Stingers and Murder Call. But the channel’s pay-off line “America Plus – First See TV” soon had us rolling on the floor with laughter.

Because it certainly wasn’t “first see.” In fact, it was at least one season behind South Africa in most cases. But that wasn’t the worst.

It was the way in which the episodes were shown. Basically, not in any particular order. It would go quite well for a few weeks, and then without warning, they would rescreen the previous few episodes mixed in with some of the current episodes. It was very confusing.

The channel Super Comedy also looked good. Nothing but sitcoms. Except they are all ancient. Like the first series of Friends. And stuff famous people made before they were famous.

My kids of course, loved the idea of the Disney Channel and the Fun Channel. Except it is mostly dubbed into Arabic. Bet you never thought you’d never hear Bob The Builder speaking Arabic. He does, and very well too. So does Winnie the Pooh actually.

We generally ended up living on a TV diet of SkyNews, BBC Prime and Animal Planet. That was until Animal Planet got converted in to Orbit Wildlife is now broadcast solely in Arabic. Excellent for those who speak Arabic. Not so excellent for the rest of the expats.

Then, in November, we went home to South Africa and discovered what we were missing. Real TV. With up to date programmes. And sports coverage of important things like South African cricket. You know. DSTV.

We’d heard that DSTV was available in Abu Dhabi, but only via slightly off-colour means. Basically, sneaky people were going to the DSTV offices and claiming false addresses in Malawi in order to obtain C-Band cards, which would allow them to set up DSTV in Abu Dhabi.

We didn’t really fancy laying claim to a false address in Malawi. It didn’t seem right. It was then, with great delight that we learnt that DSTV had given the sales rights to the C-Band cards to the South African company Space TV. And Space TV are quite happy to sell you the C-Band cards, and we clearly told them were living in Abu Dhabi. See? No lies. They didn’t appear to have a problem with this – mostly I think because we paid a years subscription upfront.

We are not the only South African expats living in Abu Dhabi to have done this. We know half a dozen other subscribers.

So on Thursday, we had a guy named Mussafah come and install the appropriate decoder and set our satellite dish up for us. It takes quite some doing to get the angle exactly right, and we have to have a super big dish. We are currently using a 6-foot dish but the signal is dodgy when the wind blows, so next week Mussafah is coming to put an even bigger dish on our roof. A 10-foot one.

But in the meantime, I can at least watch some real TV. I can even watch the South Africa – England test series (if the wind doesn’t blow too hard that is). No SABC 3 unfortunately, but hey, its far better than our other options.

Long live television!

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